What Did Obama's Latin America Trip Accomplish?

President Obama wound up his tour of Latin America in El Salvador on Wednesday. The president's trip to South and Central America has been overshadowed by events in Libya, but the administration believes the contacts and agreements made during the tour will benefit the U.S. in the years to come.

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President Obama's trip to Latin America this week was his first to the region. And despite the turmoil in Libya and Japan, the visit proceeded as scheduled.

NPR's Ari Shapiro reports from San Salvador on what the president accomplished in Latin America while the rest of the world's attention was elsewhere.

ARI SHAPIRO: Latin America's enthusiasm for the Obama family burst into view the minute the president and first lady walked into Brasilia's Planalto Palace on Saturday to face the scrum of local and foreign press.

Mr. JAVIER CORTES (TV Comedy Host): Hi, Michelle. Nice to meet you. We are Latin lovers.

SHAPIRO: That adoration came from the host of a Brazilian political comedy program. His name is Javier Cortes, and he says people in this part of the world identify with the Obamas. They can't believe the president took this long to visit.

Mr. CORTES: I don't know why he wait so much because we have samba. We have cachaca and feijoada, a lot of good things that we love it, yes.

SHAPIRO: Samba, cachaca and feijoada. President Obama and his family did sample the local food and drink here. They even took in some dancing during a visit to a favela, or slum, in Rio de Janeiro.

(Soundbite of clapping)

SHAPIRO: It was all part of a relationship-building spring break trip that has as much to do with business as pleasure.

President BARACK OBAMA: Our exports to this region, which are growing faster than our exports to the rest of the world, will soon support more than two million U.S. jobs.

SHAPIRO: This is how the president put it during the keynote speech of his trip at a cavernous underground cultural center in Santiago, Chile, on Monday.

Pres. OBAMA: In other words, when Latin America is more prosperous, the United States is more prosperous.

SHAPIRO: The global economic meltdown generally spared Latin America. Millions of people here have come out of poverty in recent years.

So when President Obama looks to the south, he doesn't see poor countries that need U.S. help. He sees buying power that could be a lifeline for the American economy. He also sees countries that have peacefully transitioned from dictatorships to democracy.

At an ornate theater in Rio, he described this part of the world as an example to people in Libya and across the Mideast.

Pres. OBAMA: Those who argue that democracy stands in the way of economic progress, they must contend with the example of Brazil.

SHAPIRO: Many presidential foreign trips come with a to-do list of deals and treaties that the U.S. hopes to secure, but that was never the focus of this tour.

Mr. MICHAEL SHIFTER (President, Inter-American Dialogue): I think it was heavy on symbolism and pretty light on substance.

SHAPIRO: Michael Shifter is president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank in Washington. He says a symbolism-heavy trip is not a bad thing.

Mr. SHIFTER: I think he gained a lot of credibility by the fact that he didn't cancel the trip. I think Latin Americans really appreciate that, and that really can pave the way for some deeper cooperation in the region.

SHAPIRO: It's difficult to gauge success on a trip designed to build a relationship, as White House spokesman Josh Earnest acknowledged during the last stop in El Salvador.

Mr. JOSH EARNEST (White House Deputy Press Secretary): The easiest way to measure the results of the trip are not the kinds of things that you can measure immediately, but certainly over the course of months and years as opportunities expand in this region, presidential trips like the one the president just completed are an important part of laying the groundwork for those kinds of relationships.

SHAPIRO: With Brazil, one of the world's largest economies today, it's clear from this part of the world that the region's relationship with the U.S. has already changed.

Ms. JULIA SWEIG (Senior Fellow and Director, Latin America Program): The United States is no longer the prom king.

SHAPIRO: Julia Sweig directs the Latin America Program at the Council on Foreign Relations. She appreciates President Obama's description of new partnerships based in equality and mutual benefits.

Ms. SWEIG: And those are beautiful words, but there's a gut sense in Washington, in the Congress, that this region should defer to the United States. It's here. It's ours, and we call the shots. And there is in the State Department and in the White House a clear understanding that the rules have completely changed from that, that this is a new Latin America.

SHAPIRO: But she says instilling that new vision in Congress and across the United States may be an effort that takes decades.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, El Salvador.

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